Sunday 27 September 2009

Dawn to Dusk

As September rolls past the Equinox, the days begin to shorten noticeably up here in the north of the planet. From a photographic point of view, this is good news for us working folk, as it means we get that good raking light coming across the car park and the adjacent allotments when we clock in of a morning, and shining back through some of the better windows on campus as we clock off at the end of the afternoon. It's not my favourite light for the drive home, however.

In compensation, any day now we'll have the first morning mists and frosts. Scraping that first frost off the car windscreen in the morning is one of those moments that, like the first reappearance of the swifts in spring, reassures me that -- despite everything we've done as a species to put a spanner in the works -- things are still working more or less as they're supposed to. But, now that I won't be dropping my son off at the railway station every morning (gulp), I really should start walking in to work again, to help that little bit more to keep it that way.

Friday 25 September 2009

The Winter's Tale

We went to see Simon Godwin's very effective production of that strangest of plays The Winter's Tale the other evening, and it's been haunting me ever since. It was the first time I'd found myself sitting in the front row of a theatre, with Paulina's spittle flying over my head in the spotlights as she rounds on Leontes, and making eye contact with Time and the old shepherd -- all three played by the same remarkable actor, Golda Rosheuvel. It was an interesting encounter with the reality and transparency of that theatrical "fourth wall".

After a while, Shakespeare's themes in the late plays can start to seem almost obsessive. Irrational fathers and husbands destroy stability through jealous rages, and in the ensuing chaos children are thrown aside and lost, strange unions and separations occur, and women move determinedly to the centre of gravity, faced with the idiocy of their men. Miracles of art and coincidence bring reconciliation of a sort after long passages of time, but a heavy price is paid, and at the end some bitter outsider is left out in the cold. People have often commented on the parallels of The Winter's Tale with the story of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but there's surely something deeper, more personally tragic, working its way to the surface here. We'll never know, of course, but sometimes some appalling personal truth seems so very close to erupting out of these plays. Maybe that's part of what has made them so compelling for 400 years. Perhaps one day, a production will be so insightful, so compelling, that the whole Shakespeare phenomenon will be laid to rest, like an exorcism. Not yet though, old mole, not yet.

Meanwhile, here are two flags I found this week, window hunting:

Thursday 24 September 2009

Teed Off

When I was at school I had such a pronounced accent (a sort of car-crash of Hertfordshire and Cockney) that my own teachers would mock me, in that ironically barbed way that school teachers used to deploy. My German teacher once remarked that, in stark contrast with my English, I spoke German with the accent and clarity of an aristocrat. The same man was determined to cast me and my equally incomprehensible friend Alan as the gravediggers in the school production of Hamlet. I later discovered that I was notorious in the staff room for always trying to divert the class onto "woider isshoos."

Now, northerners like Tony Harrison seem to have cornered the market in tales of "how my teachers worked class upon me," but all deviations from Received Pronunciation were once regarded as a strong marker of lack of intelligence and/or ambition. At one extreme, this led to the sort of suburban gentility that is so mockable ( "The cake h-which you gave to he and I"); at another, it led to the ruthless self-extirpation of any trace of class (though not necessarily regionality) once you stepped through the door of a university.

However, as Shaw wrote, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Once you stepped out of your "natural" accent, you were in a social minefield. A pick'n'mix approach to RP (a bit of BBC, a bit of thespian, a bit of Oxford) simply alerted the native speakers that, although you were unlikely to steal the silver, you didn't really belong. The snobbery of the Bloomsbury set was hardly unique, merely very well documented.

This process had started to stop by the 1970s. At university I felt no obligation whatsoever to work on my vowels, though I had already had my cockneyfied glottal stops forcibly removed by my parents, anxious that anyone asking for a "glarssa waw'ah" was doomed to be a dustman. Indeed, the process had begun to go into reverse. I encountered privately-educated contemporaries who -- especially in the context of radical politics -- had consciously taken the edge off their "natural" public school accent by rubbing away some random consonants here and deflating some vowels there, and in a few extreme cases had actually gone to the extent of taking de-elocution lessons. This put the boot on the other foot: you can no more adopt a pick'n'mix working class accent than you could fool Virginia Woolf about the drawer out of h-which you had come. Think Dick Van Dyke. Worse, think Dick Van Dyke trying to sell you a copy of Socialist Worker at the factory gate.

In the last decade, we've seen the rise of a new breed of politician, many of them my contemporaries (like Tony Blair, ptah! and Peter Mandelson, double ptah!), people who have learned to adapt to new realities like chameleons. It seems that voters cannot be commanded or convinced now, but must be won over subliminally by a species of branding campaign. New Labour was the first conduit to power for this new image-aware breed, but the Lib Dems and Tories have them, too. Voice and accent play an important part in this permanent revolution, sorry, makeover of the political class.

The old political parties were unashamedly class-based but, in all parties, an unreconstructed working-class accent was once perceived as an obstacle to power. Consider the CVs of Roy Jenkins or Ted Heath, men of humble origins who acquired preposterously fake voices at Oxford, though nowhere near as preposterous or as fake as the vocal mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher. But that has changed, and now that yesterday's radicals are today's government ministers or opposition shadows, carefully class-neutral voices are to be heard all over the radio and TV, and I have to say some of them do sound very familiar.

All this is a preamble to this simple comment: every time I hear a politician like Ed Balls or Nick Clegg or David Cameron on the media carefully inserting random glottal stops into each sentence I want to scream, "Stop it! You're not fooling anybody!! Everyone knows you were educated at a private school!!" It started a few years ago with Tony Blair, and now everyone's doing it. Even the bloody heir to the bloody throne has started doing it. It drives me mad.

Guys, listen: a glottal stop is not just a substitute for any old "t", and you get no credit for putting one in the wrong place in the wrong words. It's patronising. Just stop it.

Wednesday 23 September 2009


There's an old poster from the 1970s, which I presume started life as a cartoon somewhere. I'm sure you've seen it: two extremely hungry-looking vultures are perched on a tree. One is saying to the other, "Patience, my ass. I'm gonna kill something!"

Something of the same entrepreneurial spirit lies behind self-publication. Face it, you are 99.999% unlikely ever to be "properly" published, so why not do it yourself? If nothing else, at least you may have left a permanent trace in a library or on a bookshelf somewhere. When posterity realises you were William Blake all along, it'll be a good place for posterity to start looking.

I'm a big fan of "on demand" self-publishing websites like Blurb and Lulu. They do seem expensive for the end purchaser, unless you understand the true costs of self-publication. Look, in all accounting, there are two sides to the balance sheet: income and expenditure. But, for most self-publishers, there will be no income side to speak of. I mean no income. As in zero. Accept that you will sell no copies of your book. As in not one. So your pre-publication sums, calculated to deliver that modest profit based on modest sales, are a fantasy. You actually stand to lose thousands of pounds. And we haven't even talked about publicity and distribution. Just forget about it.

If you understand that, then suddenly the prospect of getting into print and making available for sale (at a profit, if you like) decent-quality illustrated books totally free of cost starts to seem very attractive indeed. OK, the quality may be variable, but it's a small price to pay not to be stuck with several large cardboard boxes full of unsellable books. What, you think anyone is ever satisfied with the reproduction quality of their own photographs in any book, anyway?

The other sort of web-based service of which I am an enthusiast is the sort of jobbing printer typified by VistaPrint. This setup looks like a scam, feels like a scam, endlessly junk emails you with free offers just like a scam, but actually -- isn't. VistaPrint is actually a terrific custom printing service for postcards, cards, business leaflets, fridge magnets, t-shirts, etc., etc. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're in the market for, say, small runs of nicely printed postcards or gift cards of your photographs, then get yourself on their mailing list, and believe that the endless weekly emailed free offers are just what they say they are: free (but plus postage). Actually, my favourite thing about VistaPrint is the relentless creativity they put into getting your attention: each week, there seems to be a fresh new pitch. They really, really want you to have your 100 free postcards! I have used them to print my postcards and Christmas cards for several years, and will do the same this year, too.

Go on, do it yourself. Enough patience. If you're hungry, it's time to kill something!

Tuesday 22 September 2009

The Ups and Downs

As you can see, I'm a fan of grids (Ha! It's the way I tell 'em). If nothing else, a subject with true verticals and horizontals is a good test of your camera technique. It's also a good test of your fusspot quotient: do sloping horizons or converging verticals bother you? More to the point, does it even occur to you to notice them?

I confess they do bother me more than I'd like to think, but only in this kind of shot, where getting them "wrong" would be so noticeable (or a conspicuous and provocative act of anti-fusspot-ness). Lee Friedlander can slope those pavements all he likes, as far as I'm concerned -- it works. Although I'm a 100% hand-held photographer, I do tend to notice and straighten verticals when composing in the viewfinder, although I do have a tendency always to raise the horizontal to the left.

In fact, if I had to name one simple thing that had improved my work, it would be "paying attention to vertical edges" and, for most purposes, trying to keep them parallel to the edge of the frame (i.e. not pointing the camera up or down). If nothing else, it means you often have to try different angles of approach, or using the "built in leg zoom", which often means finding better pictures.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Christmas Trees

Anyone who admits to an interest in photography usually becomes a convenient one-stop shop for friends and colleagues seeking photographic advice: usually variations on the question "What camera should I buy my partner for Christmas?" I can imagine there are enthusiasts for whom this is a golden opportunity to sound off -- all that compacted review reading and blog lurking suddenly finds an outlet, and the enquirer finds herself engulfed in a bewildering tsunami of second- and third-hand expertise. Not me, though. I'm not keen on spending my own money, never mind anyone else's.

It generally does no good to explain that I am not a pixel-peeping gear-head with views on the relative strengths of in-body
versus in-lens image stabilisation, or that in my opinion one camera at the same price point is much the same as any other and that, in the end, you get what you pay for and the real question is, will you ever make use of half of what you've bought? No: I have been outed as a photographer, and it seems to matter to some people what I think. Flattering, I suppose, really. But, as the venerable saying has it: in the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

In the extremis, as Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues, I have been known to direct the enquirer to find out what the intended recipient's favourite colour is, and to go with that. Or to say out loud the sacred names "Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Sony" and to make a note of the one that feels most pleasing or auspicious to invoke. I never include the name "Leica" in this incantation, of course, as I'm not prepared to be responsible for the consequences.

The more interesting (and genuinely flattering) side of becoming known as a photographer is that people want your opinion of actual photographs, sometimes their own, and sometimes -- less hazardously and more interestingly -- those they have come across. As a person who has held strong opinions on most things since firmly rejecting green vegetables at age three, I have constantly to remind myself that having a broad spectrum of strong views is not the normal human condition. I have learned to tread carefully. A snort of derision ("Ansel Adams!") can crush the green shoots of curiosity as effectively as a boot heel, whereas an admiringly raised eyebrow ("Richard Misrach?") can be all that is needed to drive through the green fuse a mighty oak of creativity.

The thing that emerges consistently for me from these random encounters is the extent to which people are held back by an elevation of subject matter over "making pictures". Most people, understandably, take photos "of" something. They want to represent what they see. After all, it's the obvious strength of photography over, say, drawing: it is quite hard not to achieve an acceptable likeness of the reality presented to the camera. But, on the other hand, it is still just as hard to produce a good picture "by, with, or from" the subject rather than "of" the subject.* That is, to make a satisfying arrangement of two-dimensional marks on a flat surface. This (in my view) is the only really productive approach to photography.

It doesn't help that famous photographers are often known by their characteristic subject matter, in a way that painters tend not to be. It confuses people about the "how" of great work. They think, "If only I could stand in the desert where Richard Misrach stood, or find before me the interesting people that Richard Avedon found, or be present at scenes of heart-breaking tragedy like Sebastião Salgado, then I, too, would take great photographs." Well, no, actually you wouldn't. Because, let's be honest, you can't even take an interesting photo of the family Christmas tree.

This has little to do with "art". No-one employs an "artist" to represent the sinks and stoves in a kitchen catalogue, after all. They're just photographs. But the question that few aspiring photographers ask is, how is it that the photographs in the humblest product catalogue or cookbook far exceed in quality and impact anything I can achieve? It's similar to our unquestioning acceptance, as naive filmgoers, of the astonishing but artfully transparent feats of the cinematographer.

Just a little thought, a little analysis, and a lot of looking at good photographs, will raise interesting questions about colour, composition, lighting, and lenses to which, it turns out, there are conventional answers which are reliably known to work (see: the kitchen catalogue) and, sometimes, new, exciting, original answers (see: Misrach, Avedon, Salgado). Learning to appreciate the difference -- basic visual literacy -- is the first giant step down the road to making an interesting photograph of the family Christmas tree.

At least, that's what I tell the few people who don't flee once I have evaded their question about the quality of their holiday snaps and have started to rant about kitchen catalogues and Christmas trees.

* Genitive versus ablative photography, perhaps?

Thursday 17 September 2009


The windows on campus still exercise their fascination. This natural pair came together this week, while taking my new camera body (Canon 450D) on its lunchtime patrols. The venerable 350D body will go to my daughter, who is showing all the danger signals of creative talent.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

We Salute Attenborough

I found this unexpected insight into the mind of Werner Herzog (maker of some of my favourite films) on the Werner Herzog Archive:
New Statesman: To British viewers, at least, Encounters At The End Of The World will seem like a very warped take on the traditional TV nature documentary.
Werner Herzog: Yeah but I wouldn't put them down because in Great Britain you have some of the very finest nature documentaries worldwide.
New Statesman: Are you a David Attenborough fan, then?
Werner Herzog: I am. I like his excitement, I like the fervour and how he comes across to an audience is just wonderful. You see the excitement that you feel as a child when you discover for the first time that there are mountains on the moon when you look through a telescope. He transports this kind of excitement, this spirit of wonder, into what he sees and what he presents. So I would not like to put down what you see on television. Some of it is phenomenally beautiful.
New Statesman: In a way, you and Attenborough are trying to get at the same thing, just approaching it in different styles.
Werner Herzog: In different styles, but the wonder and excitement makes us brothers. I salute Attenborough.
New Statesman: Let's hope he sees this interview!
Werner Herzog: Whatever. He knows that he's good.
I'm a David Attenborough fan, too (who isn't?). When I was small, the Zoo Quest programmes on the BBC were an inspiration, and for many years I was an avid collector of creatures in jamjars and wildlife detritus. I still have some of my Zoo Quest books: Quest Under Capicorn sparked an interest in Australian aboriginal people which lasted for many years. When I was about twelve, I used to cover sheets of plywood with imitation bark paintings of goannas, barramundi fish and wondjinas.

It's strange when heroes from two apparently different domains of your life come together like this, and shake hands. Herzog, too, has an interest in indigenous peoples, of course: I wonder whether he read Quest Under Capricorn?

The boy who would be Attenborough

You'll think I'm making this up, but: this photograph was taken on my first camera (a Fed 3) by my father in the Austrian Tyrol, not far from Innsbruck, just seconds after I found this classic Red Deer antler. Remarkably, or ridiculously, I still have that antler, 40-plus years later.*

* Still got the camera, too.

Sunday 13 September 2009

I'd Like To Thank...

As you know, I was unable to attend the opening of "Der Widergänger" last night in Innsbruck but I have given some thought to what I might have said had I been there. It is traditional -- or at least appears to be so, if one takes televised award ceremonies as a model -- to give public thanks to the people who made it all possible, starting with one's parents and ending with wails and broken sobs.

So, here's my list*. I'd like to thank:

The unknown holidaymaker on the beach at Hemsby, Norfolk in August 1959 who let me use his high-quality Zeiss binoculars all day. Looking through those silvery lenses made my heart soar, and sharpened an appetite for simple seeing that has never left me.

John Boxley: my best friend in Infants School, whose pride in my ability to draw aeroplane wings as seen from the side was such that he would get me to sketch them in front of other kids in the playground dust with a stick. "Look, look! He's drawing them FROM THE SIDE!" This early taste of celebrity convinced me this was something worth persisting with.

Miss Dorothy Hendey and Mr. Michael Davies: primary school teachers at Peartree Spring Junior school in Stevenage, who entered me for several national junior painting competitions, two of which, ahem, I won. They made me feel success was the natural consequence of working on one's talents (such as being able to draw aeroplane wings from the side! Damn, I was good).

The unknown holidaymaker in 1967 (at the Gasthof Lamm in Tarrenz, Austria -- "Warum vorbei?") who turned out to be both interested in moths and butterflies (then my main enthusiasm in life) and photography. He took the time to explain the advantages of his SLR for insect photography, but also explained how I might use supplementary lenses on my brand new Fed 3 Russian rangefinder. Such life-enhancing kindness to show to a shy 13-year old boy.

The unknown conference attendee who stole several of my drawings from my college room one vacation. Almost as big a compliment as offering to buy them. So I will also mention Dick of Dicey Corridor because he did ask to buy the original of one of the drawings I used to do for the cover of Strumpet, a radical student magazine. It revived the heady feeling I had experienced some years before when the older sister of a schoolfriend bought my ink portrait of John Lennon. However, it would be another 30 years before I sold anything else.

The difficulty of etching: For a long time I thought of myself as a printmaker. After gouging many linocuts and woodcuts -- those gateway techniques -- I finally gravitated to a course on etching: the hard stuff. One evening, after being shown how to produce a photo-etching from a negative in an enlarger in a darkroom, the penny dropped. Etching is difficult, dated, and dreary; the photographic darkroom, by contrast, looked easy, exciting and fun (well, two out of three ain't bad).

Mike Skipper: Mike laid the foundation for everything I know about photography and the black and white darkroom, on a course in 1984 at the Southampton branch of the Oxford Darkroom. Above all, he took me to one side at the exhibition that was the culmination of the course and said some kind things that convinced me I had started on a lifetime journey.

Richard R.: Richard was my drinking companion for several years when I first arrived in Southampton in 1984. A keen photographer himself who once exhibited alongside Fay Godwin, he is probably the most patient and gifted printer of black and white negatives I have ever met, truly a wizard. Sadly, Richard gave up photography for windsurfing, and we haven't had anything to talk about since. Why, Rich, why?

Peter Goldfield: I said what I have to say about Peter here. I realise hyperlinks don't really work in an Oscar speech, but there we go. For me, without Duckspool, nothing. Simple as that.

Finally, The Weather of the British Isles : I dedicated my master's dissertation to "the weather of summer 1977" because it had been such a blessed washout compared to that legendary sun-fest of 1976. I don't think I could have written the tedious thing otherwise. The weather has been a source of fascination, frustration, joy, despair, exhilaration, anger, but never indifference or boredom, ever since. Above all, it is the ever-changing British weather that gives us the ever-changing British light, and ... and ... which ... I ...[sobs incoherently]

* I could also compile an anti-list -- for example my secondary school which made me choose between continuing art lessons or studying German (noooo!) -- but we don't want to go to that bitter place on this happy occasion.

Friday 11 September 2009

Oh well

It is one of the great unresolved mysteries of my life that I was never approached to join the Secret Intelligence Service. It is one of the mythic scenarios of university life, after all: the casual approach from a tutor, wondering out loud whether one had any interest in being of service to one's country, the subsequent meeting with the Man from London in the pub, etc. Next stop, a life in which one has to answer the question "And what do you do?" with even more evasion that I have to muster now. Or perhaps not. I believe Spooks'R'Us has a webpage now and recruits quite openly via the newspapers; they probably twitter, too.

I would have said no, of course (I think, probably), but I was such a good fit -- speaks a range of European languages including German and Russian, of nondescript appearance but possessed of an easy charm and ready wit, comfortable with the highest and the lowest in the land, with a wide acquaintance among political radicals and various subcultural currents, desperate for cash and easily seduced by the romance of a Lark ... Dammit, I even had the under-16 equivalent of a brown belt in judo.

On reflection, I think the problem may have been that no single person knew all of these things about me. That, and the fact that I spent three years more or less permanently in bed during daylight hours. Thinking about it, very few people other than a small group of similarly-inclined friends may even have noticed I was ever there.

The other classic opportunity for Great Things at university -- one that did come my way, but which I passed up -- was the approach from a future kingmaker. Last year, Geoffrey Perkins died. His name may not mean much to non-Brits, but if I say he produced The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and held Douglas Adams' feet to the fire to get the scripts delivered you get the idea. As a writer and producer, he was central to a whole generation of influential (but strangely forgettable) British radio and TV comedy.

When he died, pictures of him in his Oxford days were shown on the news, and I remembered: one evening in 1973 or 74 the very same slightly goofy lad wearing the very same silly tank top and another guy had come knocking on my door.

"We hear you're quite funny," he said, "Would you like to write some stuff for our review?"
"No," I said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said.

And that was that.

Thursday 10 September 2009

What's On In Innsbruck?

For the German speakers amongst you, here is some early press coverage of my show in Innsbruck, courtesy of Rupert Larl. Modesty forbids me from translating for you, though I will point out that the item with "Kitsch" in the headline is not about me, thankfully.

This is an exciting experience for me, as you can imagine: and not just the exhibition, but also reading about myself in my favourite foreign language. Klasse! (does anyone still say that? It was quite hip in 1970...) Like Alice, I seem to have passed through the looking glass...

Wednesday 9 September 2009


Increasingly, I find myself asking "What is wrong with this country?" I've always felt a bit of an outsider -- you couldn't grow up where I grew up with my interests and aptitudes without feeling that way -- but I think that nonetheless I've always unthinkingly bought in to that smug view that Britain, somehow, is at the centre of things. After all, there's a venerable tradition of inclusion in Britain which puts strange, difficult folk like William Blake or Isaac Newton or even Winston Churchill at the centre of the national myth, at least after they're dead; you used to feel there was a place for everybody, including "the awkward squad". But recently I have started to feel less like a bit of an outsider than a visitor from another planet.

I only have to leave these shores for the feeling to be amplified tenfold. It's like waking up from a terrible dream. Clean streets, decent houses, no drunken, loutish behaviour, no feral kids or street gangs, reliable public transport, state of the art health care ... Simple things, to be sure, but we -- as a nation -- seem to have decided to unzip our collective fly and piss all over them. We are an unlovely, loud presence at the fringe of everything that is right about Europe.

I read this week in The Guardian that increasing numbers of British artists are taking up residence in Europe, where to be an artist is regarded as an honourable vocation worthy of public subsidy, rather than as a scam for the work-shy. Pianist Nicolas Hodges, based in Stuttgart, "recently gave a Ligeti recital at Salzburg to a packed 1000-seat hall; in comparison, he says, he would have an audience of around 100 at Huddersfield contemporary music festival." It's hardly surprising people are leaving, is it? After all, no British gallery would ever offer the likes of me an exhibition.

It's a funny feeling, though, falling out of love with your own country. I can't help feeling that it must somehow be my fault ("It's not you, it's me") and perhaps it is. Or at least perhaps it's the fault of our generation, with our over-extended childhoods, our corrosive political cynicism, our covert worship of that falsest of gods, America, and our fear of seriousness masked with irony. We mocked and rejected the stuffy, traditional ways that delivered us the peculiar country we grew up in, but never quite came up with anything adequate to put in their place. We thought the European Project was too earnest and too boring to take seriously. We thought politics was "show business for ugly people." We said, "Don't vote, it only encourages them," and "Whoever you vote for, the government still gets in." We were right, of course, on every count, but that was never going to be enough: no surprise, then, that some ugly people took over our politics.

But I don't really feel responsible for all this mess, whether by neglect or a refusal to participate. I'm just a face in the crowd, 2000 light years from home. Instead, all I can do is shrug and contemplate the queue and the contents of the shopping trolleys in Tesco on a Saturday morning. "Are these my compatriots? Is this what they want? What is wrong with this country?"

Monday 7 September 2009


It's September, and I've had a good break, if hardly a long one, and as a family we've had a positively astrological run of good fortune during the summer: the partner became a professor, the son got the grades for his chosen university, the daughter got good grades in the five GCSEs which -- against our judgement -- she was made to take a year early, and I'm about to have what promises to be an excellent exhibition. So am I relaxed and happy and refreshed? Far from it. Returning to work is so depressing. And so much good fortune in a row is making me edgy.

It's a truth that we mainly choose to ignore, that holidays are not really good for us. We all invest too much in our precious "time off," and it never really delivers. Face it, two weeks of play in a pair of shorts will not turn an ant into a brown-kneed grasshopper, nor will it much sharpen the edge of the boy Jack's dullness. Just ask Gordon Brown...

In a previous post (A Perfect Dordogne Read) I wrote of reading an Andy McNab thriller on holiday:
"As well as a bracing immersion into a single-minded world of Glocks and gollocks*, its compelling simplicity convinced me that I could sit down when I got home and write a bestseller myself. I would become rich, and then lead a life of my own leisurely choosing ever after. This was actually a more exciting fantasy than the book itself.

Now I come to think of it, such infantile musings are often the stuff of my vacation reveries. After all, the most powerful side-effect of any decent holiday is to cast a strong, unflattering light onto the other 95% of your year. It's a tantalizing glimpse of your "if only" life. I suppose that's why France is full of farmhouses, converted but unoccupied most of the year by British owners who have let such fantasies get the better of them."
On reflection, I realise I may have stumbled across a great truth about my life here. The problem is I can't quite figure it out. Maybe it has something to with the way the two parallel realities -- the workaday reality and the holiday daydream -- might be brought explosively into contact by simply enacting the fantasy. Write the bestseller! Live life as a holiday! Leap tall buildings in a single bound! Why not? Well, because. Or maybe it has something to do with recognising the superior and self-contained nature of one's capacity for daydreaming over one's capacity to "live large"? The "fifty things to do before you die" type of person always strikes me as needy, and never particularly fulfilled. Fulfilled people have usually learned to sit quietly in a room, and rarely go in for bungee jumping (though they might have a quiet smile thinking about it).

I have recently found myself in the odd position of repeatedly explaining why I'm not straining every nerve to travel to Innsbruck on September 11th** and I have found myself reaching for an analogy with the distinction between those who want to be writers, and those who want to write. The former are yearning for a lifestyle and fantasize about huge advances, booksigning tours in the USA, and Booker Prize acceptance speeches; the latter just want to be left to get on with writing their books.

Personally, I am not turned on by the idea of enacting the role of "photographer" or "artist." It is very gratifying indeed that Rupert Larl likes my work enough to give me a show in his gallery, but I'm very happy for the work to speak for itself. Although I can be a dreadful show-off, I'm more of a heckler than a main act, and anyway I'd like to think that the images are way better than anything I could say about them. On the other hand, if planes did fly direct from Southampton to Innsbruck and back every day I think my ego could withstand just a little attention. But they don't, so it'll just have to get by.

But what does turn me on is EVERYTHING about making photographs, from the hunter-gatherer outings where the ecstasy of "getting in the zone" is always within reach, to the exquisite agony of long evenings spent editing and sequencing images. For me, it's all about the process. Yes, of course, the destination is important (whether it be prints or self-made books or now an exhibition) but it's the journey there that matters. Crucially, I have found that making photographs is something I'm able to do, want to do, and do do -- day in, day out, year in, year out. Unlike, say, writing, painting, print-making, playing the guitar or any of the other things I never quite transformed from daydreaming or dabbling into doing.

But the thing about going on holiday is that being away from work and from home means that I also take a break from photography -- beaches and sunsets and mountains and pretty villages are not my thing and, besides, what is more boring for a family than a father who wants to hang out in strange corners with a camera for hours on end? So in order to get to do what I want to do I also have to be back at work, which is a paradox I could do without.

* re. "Glocks and gollocks": I forgot to gloss this in the original post -- a Glock is a popular and euphonious brand of sidearm, and a gollock is the British Army's preferred (Malaysian) term for a machete. Neat, eh? I'm going to monitor the spread of this linguo-meme closely, as it's currently unique on the entire internet!

** The ominousness of the anniversary has only this second struck me, and played no part in my deliberations, honest!

Friday 4 September 2009

Translation Service

I've been asked to provide a translation of the text on the exhibition invitation so -- in case your German is not what it was -- the German texts read as follows:

"We invite you to the opening of the exhibition on Thursday, 10th September 2009 at 18:30.

At 19:00 Jennifer Charmandy will read texts by Mike Chisholm on photography from the blog Idiotic Hat.

Guided tours for school parties through the exhibition may be arranged by telephone on Saturdays 19th September and 3rd October, as part of the programme 'The Long Night of Museums'.

THE REVENANT is open Tues-Fri 15:00-19:00 and Sat 10:00-13:00 until 10/10/09.

web:, mail:, phone 0043(0)512-572236"

There are about 80 images in the show, a selection from the sequences "The Revenants", "Brilliant Corners", "Pentagonal Pool", and "The Mysterious Barricades".

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Consider Yourself Invited

Here is the rather nice invitation that Rupert Larl has made for my Innsbruck exhibition. It's a 21cm square, folded vertically about 6.5cm in from the left, so that a narrow slice of the image on the reverse folds over to conceal the left hand column of text and make an A5 sheet -- very elegant. Vielen Dank, Rupert! I only hope that the photographs can live up to their billing.

The title ("Der Widergänger") means "The Revenant", a reference to one of the sequences featured in the exhibition, and to my habit of repeatedly haunting the same spots. Unfortunately, one spot I am unlikely to be haunting in the next month is Innsbruck, though I haven't yet completely abandoned the prospect. But, should you happen to be in Austria between 10th September and 11th October, please do drop into the gallery, and make yourself known as a reader of this blog. It is Fotoforum West, at Adolf-Pichler-Platz 8, Innsbruck.